By Miray Holmes, City of Tampa
The fourth program of our Leadership Tampa ’17 adventure, Arts & Culture Day, was generously sponsored by the law firm of Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen. Our gracious chairs for the day who kept us on time and informed were Jeff Gibson (LT’13), Partner, Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen & Jim Porter (LT’99 & LT’15 Chair), Partner, Adams and Reese. The Arts and Culture Day program provided a behind the scenes look at the breadth and scope of the creative industries in Tampa. While the economic impact in spending, jobs and events can be measured, the arts contribution to the heart, soul and fabric of the city, county and region cannot be quantified.
Our first stop was the Graphicstudio, Institute for Research in Arts at the University of South Florida. The USF Institute for Research in Art is the umbrella organization for Graphicstudio, the Contemporary Art Museum, and the Public Art program. Many of us were experiencing for the first time this unique experiment in art and education, one of only three in the country, including the University of New Mexico and the University of Wisconsin. Through the art on display, we were able to view the Institute’s philosophy of providing artists with the freedom to experiment and pursue innovative directions to advance their creative discipline.
The dynamic Director Margaret A. Miller graciously rearranged her schedule to join us and provided the history and unique collaborative model the Institute has created which serves students, faculty, visiting artists and the Research Partners. Margaret explained the business model of the Institute and how the Research Partners Programs allows participants to collect significant art while supporting research and education commitments. Some of the leading museums and collectors including the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, the New York Public Library and the Centre Pompidou in Paris continue to acquire Graphicstudio editions.
We viewed a variety of works of art that used traditional and experimental printmaking techniques, bronze casting, wood, stainless steel, digital output of film, dead insects (yes insects!) and other pioneering mixed media materials. Research Associate/Printer Tim Baker demonstrated the intricate printmaking process. In addition to the exhibitions, collection development, publication of limited edition graphics and sculpture, multiples and commissioned public art works, the Institute also hosts lectures, workshops and special events designed to bring an awareness about the role of contemporary artists in shaping our culture and society.
Our next stop of the morning was the iconic City of Tampa landmark, the Tampa Theatre. The magnificent Tampa Theatre was designed and built by John Eberson, one of the most internationally renowned and prolific movie palace designers of his time, responsible for building about 100 theaters all over the world including works that still survive in Miami, Chicago, Ohio, Michigan, New York, Texas, Paris, France and Sydney, Australia. The Tampa Theatre opened October 15, 1926 to immense anticipation and was enormously popular.
Our host and guide was Tampa Theatre President and CEO John Bell. John came to Tampa from North Carolina where he managed the historic Carolina Theatre in Greensboro, NC. John spoke with knowledge and passion about the history and significance of the Tampa Theatre. Sitting the in the red velvet seats, we were transported back to 1926 when the lavish downtown movie palace opened allowing common citizens for the first time in history access to opulence on a scale never before imagined. For 25 cents people could escape into a fantasyland for two hours, enjoy first-class entertainment and be treated like royalty by uniformed platoons of ushers and attendants. The Tampa Theatre remained a jewel at the center of Tampa’s cultural landscape for several decades allowing generations of people who stole their first kiss in the balcony to follow the world through the newsreels and grow up coming to the Theatre week after week.
But by the 1960s, times had changed. America’s flight to the suburbs was having a damaging effect on downtown businesses, and among the hardest hit were the movie palaces that lit up America’s main streets, especially with the advent of television. Audiences dwindled and costs rose. Many of our nation’s finest movie palaces were demolished as the land beneath them became more valuable than the theater’s operations and in 1973 the Tampa Theatre faced the same fate. But Tampa’s citizens rallied, committees were formed and community leaders got involved, leading to a deal for the City to rescue the Theatre. By the time the Theatre reopened to the public in January 1977, it had become something of a national model on how to save an endangered theater. Tampa Theatre was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
The Theatre is managed by the not-for-profit Tampa Theatre Foundation and is one of the most heavily utilized venues of its kind in the United States. Tampa Theatre’s single auditorium hosts more than 600 events each year, including a full schedule of first-run and classic films, concerts, special events, corporate events, tours and educational programs. Since its rescue in 1977, more than 5 million visitors to downtown Tampa, including 1 million school children for field trips and summer camps, have visited this passionately protected and beloved community landmark. The theatre is currently embarking on an $11 million capital campaign to renovate the seating throughout the theatre.
The award-winning Tampa Museum of Art was the next stop on our tour and one of the newest buildings complimenting the Tampa arts and culture landscape. We first had a delicious lunch at Sono Café, operated by the iconic Mise en Place, on the Museum’s expansive, covered terrace with an unparalleled view of the University of Tampa Minarets, Curtis Hixon Park and the downtown skyline overlooking the banks of the Hillsborough River.
The Tampa Bay Art Center (founded in 1923) and the Tampa Junior Museum (founded in 1958) served Tampa’s cultural needs until 1964. At that time the City of Tampa requested that the Arts Council of Tampa/Hillsborough County, in consultation with community arts organizations, develop a plan for a City art museum to be built with funding from a bond issue. The following year, the plan was approved and began to materialize under a newly created private/public partnership with the City of Tampa known as the Tampa Museum Federation. The Federation was the genesis of what is now the Tampa Museum of Art. In 1979, the new art museum opened and operated in downtown Tampa on a riverfront site behind the Convention Center for 8 years until it relocated to West Tampa in 1987. To prepare for construction of a new museum facility in downtown Tampa, the Museum relocated to an interim facility in West Tampa in December of 2007. Construction began in April 2008 and the new Museum opened on February 6, 2010 with a commitment to providing innovative public programs with a strong focus on antiquities and modern and contemporary art.
Dr. Michael A. Tomor, the Museums Executive Director since April of 2015 initially addressed the group in the expansive lobby. Dr. Tomor came to Tampa from the El Paso Museum of Art and prior to that, the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Dr. Tomor described how the Museum balances a growing collection with a dynamic annual schedule of special exhibitions that bring the world’s finest visual arts to the region. The Tampa Museum of Art, Inc., a private IRS 501(c)(3) entity, owns the permanent collection. The City of Tampa owns the museum building and provides a grant for partial operational support. Through its Board of Trustees, the Museum is responsible for all operational policies and procedures, as well as for funding for the collection, exhibitions, education programs, and staffing. Dr. Tomor has implemented free general admission to all university, college, and higher education students. He has also created Connections, a community engagement program for those experiencing depression, dementia, and trauma, in partnership with the University of South Florida Honors College.
The building was designed with clean lines and tall white walls that allow the art to stand out and not compete with its surroundings. The exhibitions we toured with the curators were:
- Complicated Beauty: Contemporary Cuban Art is the Museum’s first survey of contemporary Cuban art from the 1970s to the present, reflecting a cross-generational look at recent trends in Cuban art.
- Manuel Carrillo: Mi Querido Mexico (My Beloved Mexico) is an exhibit by Manuel Carrillo (Mexican, 1906-1989), known as “El Maestro Mexicano,” and is a collection of intimate black and white photographic images of workers, the elderly, and families in his native Mexico.
- Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum which propose reframing American folk art through the concept of “self-taught genius,” as an elastic and enduring notion whose meaning has evolved over time.
A short walk away was our next the stop, the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts venue which anchors the downtown cultural stretch along the Hillsborough River that includes the Tampa Museum of Art, the Glazer Children’s Museum, Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.
We gathered in the Jaeb Theater, one of the smaller of the five theaters within the world-class David Straz Center complex. Judith Lisi, the President and Chief Executive Officer joined us in the theater. Judith is an accomplished theater producer, director and playwright whose deep theater roots began at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music as well as the Metropolitan Opera, Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport, Connecticut and the Shubert Performing Arts Center in New Haven, Connecticut.
Judith described the evolution of the humble beginnings on an abandoned gravel lot in a city that was lacking cultural offerings to the Straz Center of today, the largest performing arts center in the Southeast and the only one with an on-site performing arts conservatory and the first in the state of Florida with multiple venues.
Florida Governor Bob Martinez laid the groundwork for the center when he was Tampa Mayor from 1979 to 1986. Mayor Martinez campaigned on building a performing arts center and didn’t want a city-run facility but rather a nonprofit board to oversee it. Martinez was passionate about offering the hundreds of kids that don’t play sports an opportunity to experience the fine arts.
While it was slow getting started, the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts was incorporated in 1980. Although Martinez resigned in 1986 to make a successful run for governor, Tampa’s next mayor, Sandy Freedman, continued the support for the center, which opened the following year on September 12, 1987 as the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
With an annual $110 million economic impact, more than 2,200 events per year, a loyal base of patrons and season ticket holders and 600,000 patrons annually, the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts has become a major cultural asset for Tampa. Since its opening, more than 12 million patrons have walked through its doors and thousands of performers — actors, musicians, singers, dancers and comedians — have stood on its stages. Theater goers have enjoyed performances ranging from Broadway productions such as of Jersey Boys, Lion King, Wicked and Flashdance, to performances by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the classic opera “La Bohème” and the musical group The Carolina Chocolate Drops.
We had an opportunity to tour the 2,6100seat Carol Morsani Hall and the three-story, 45,000 square-foot Patel Conservatory. The Conservatory sits at the north end of the Center offering more than 100 performing arts classes in dance, theater and music for students of all ages and experience levels. The Patel Conservatory provides the finest performing arts training in an inspirational setting by giving students the tools to dream, reach, discover and create the performing arts; integrate them into everyday life; and contribute to the community.
The last stop of the day was StageWorks Theatre. A theatre that while small in its stage stature, is large in its mission to showcase socially conscious theater. StagewWorks is nestled in the courtyard among a complex of beautiful gleaming hi-rise condos known as Grand Central. This one-of-kind theater is the bridge from the Straz Center to Ybor City’s vibrant arts scene and a gathering place for Channel District residents. The co-developers of Grand Central at Kennedy, who kindly lease the space to Stage Works for $10 a year, are Ken Stoltenberg and Frank Bombeeck.
StageWorks founding Artistic director was Anna Brennen, whose career accomplishments have included actor, director and all things related to building and sustaining an up-and-coming theater. Anyone who’s met Brennen or worked with her — actors, colleagues, students, critics, donors, developers, subscribers, even construction workers — describe her as a bit larger than life. Brennan was able to keep a theater company going for 28 years without a home of its own, including the seven years it took to plan, build and fundraise for the $1.2 million, 8,000-square-foot Channel District space.
We were educated and entertained by StageWorks’ exuberant Producing Artistic Director/Technical Director/Jill-of-all trades, Karla Hartley. Karla received a BFA in Theater Studies from Boston University and is the owner of three Theatre Tampa Bay awards for Best Director. She also directed the inaugural show, the David Friedman musical revue, Listen to My Heart, when StageWorks opened in its current location in 2011. She was named Best Director 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2015 in the Creative Loafing Best of the Bay Awards as well as The Artist Most Likely to Have Been Born on the Planet Krypton. We all understood why after spending just 20 minutes with her. Karla works alongside an eight-member board, 5 full-time staff, six part-time staff, 168 artists and over 100 volunteers.
Karla passionately lives and breathes the StageWorks mission: “We provide the highest quality professional theater that respects, ignites and celebrates the human spirit while challenging the thresholds of intolerance and sensitivity”. StageWorks is renowned in the theatre community for it’s commitment to offering a home for diverse at risk youth to learn and ‘do’ theater, while being sanctuary for artists to congregate, create and perform. Over 20,000 people annually experience performances that give voice to those marginalized by circumstance and explore the cultural tension inherent in living in a multi-cultural society that is still struggling with painful legacies of racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism.